Perhaps the second most common question about the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s expansion – other than “When will it finally be finished?” – is simply “What will it look like?”
Vishakha Desai, art historian and president and CEO of the Asia Society, attempted to address this question in the seven-week “Reimagining the Museum” series’s concluding lecture last Sunday at the Rackham Amphitheatre. Desai’s Asia Society is an international educational organization dedicated to strengthening connections between the people of Asia and the United States.
Desai, a University alum, began her lecture with a simple qualm: “I’m somewhat nervous,” she quipped in a youthful voice. “It’s not typical for an art historian not to have slides, or a PowerPoint, or something as a visual aid.”
Her fears proved unwarranted, as her lecture could have captivated even the most avid avoiders of museums. Desai refrained from discourse based solely on art or art history, instead asking the audience, in a tone of undaunted optimism, to imagine the art museum in the year 2050 in order to investigate how current social, political and economic factors would assist an understanding of what shape the institution might take.
“By the year 2050, America will no longer be the sole superpower,” Desai said. “What that means is that America will have to share the idea of the sole-superpower status with other countries – other cultures.”
Since UMMA is scheduled to reopen in early 2009, a flash-forward to the year 2050 is a bit of a stretch for the University’s purposes, but Desai maintained that “we can only think of where we will be if we think of where we’ve been.”
The histories of the museum and nation are, according to Desai, undeniably intertwined. She vividly recounted the journey of the art museum, one that has included presenting colonial legacy, instilling and restoring national civic pride and displaying the triumphs of a civilized nation. “Museums have a solidity with the past,” she explained. “As institutions they are products of their time.”
Desai hopes to inspire a vision in which art museums can more than ever represent the world of which they are a part. She suggested using various elements of pop culture to make museums more appealing to an often-apathetic younger generation.
“You might have one room in which there is a single object that kids voted on,” she said. An art museum “American Idol” of sorts
Although it may seem outlandish, museums are beginning to reflect these nuances of American culture. Desai cited the San Francisco Museum of Art: “One of the biggest discussions (in designing the building) was how to fit corporate functions for 300 or more,” she said.
Indeed, if museums are products of their time, the UMMA will be grandiose, intricate and awe-inspiring – but it will also be, according to Desai, “a space that competes for leisure activity – museums are competing against football games, or theatres or plays.” The crux of Desai’s lecture was her insistence on bolstering museums’ status as recreational endeavors. She argued for diminishing their connotation of antiquation and making them “stand separate from the current ‘virtual’ reality” she believes characterizes American culture. For the University, that means making it not such an absurdity to see students spending their football Saturdays at the UMMA.
The “Reimaginers” have their work cut out for them. But as Desai said, in reference to a Chinese proverb: “Every challenge has possibility for opportunity.”
Reimagining the Museum